Addiction in Children: A review of “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff

Standing in line at StarBucks for my weekly vanilla steamer, I was preparing to fortify myself for the “parent guidance” meeting when I spotted beside the cash register a shelf display of David Sheff’s Beautiful Boy. Something made me pick up a copy.

Like many adoptive parents, I frequently think about the whole “nurture vs. nature” conundrum. When all is said and done, how much will we be able to influence our children and the choices they make … and how much is genetically predetermined? Will they be forced to pay with their own lives the tab for the choices their first parents made?

According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, children raised by parents with substance abuse issues are in the “highest risk group” of those who will themselves become addicted. Even if these children are placed in other families through adoption or foster care, they are between two and nine times more likely to become addicted than their peers.

I asked the counselor if this means we should clear out any and all alcohol from our shelves, to which she replied, “Well … that is one approach. However, it is also possible that it could be a good thing for them to see a model of responsible alcohol use.”

Beautiful Boy gave me some insights about addiction that parents of adopted children (perhaps especially those from the foster care system) do well to keep in mind. While it comes from a unabashedly secular POV (the author equates God with conscience on p.154), he also recognizes the futility of trying to control the uncontrollable, whether the toxic impulses are our own or our children’s.

Parents of the addicted must come to terms with their own relative powerlessness, with the sheer irrationality of the disease … and with the reality that, in the end, the only person they may be able to save is themselves. Not a comforting thought, even when you do believe in God. And yet, even faith offers no temporal guarantee. We can trust God for the outcome … but in the end, to paraphrase the great C.S. Lewis, “I don’t pray to change God’s mind. I pray so that change may come in me.”

This inability to prevent one’s children from destroying themselves is a sobering thought, one that is absolutely counter-intuitive for most parents. Nor is it exclusively the realm of substance addiction. There is a sickness of spirit, a woundedness of the will, that can take hold of a child in any number of forms. The daughter caught in the violent cycle of domestic abuse, the son addicted to porn, the teenager who struggles with bulimia or anorexia. In some cases, even religion can become an addiction when the ritual becomes a compulsion devoid of relationship. Sheff writes:

“More than anything, parents want to know at what point a child is no longer experimenting, no longer a typical teenager, no longer going through a phase or a rite of passage. Since it’s unanswerable, I have concluded that I would err on the side of caution and intervene earlier rather than later — not waiting until a child is wantonly endangering himself or others. Looking back, I wish I had forced [son] Nic — when he was young enough so that legally I could have forced him — into a long-term program of rehabilitation. Sending a child — or adult, for that matter — to rehab before he is ready and able to understand the principles of recovery may not prevent relapse, but from what I’ve seen it cannot hurt and may help. In addition, a period of forced abstinence during the formative teenage years is better than that same time spent on drugs. Forced treatment in a good program accomplishes at least one immediate goal: It keeps a child off drugs for the time he is in treatment. Since the less someone uses, the easier it is to stop, the longer he is in treatment the better” (p.312).

In the end, however, we can control only so much. In the end, each person must choose the path he or she will follow, the kind of life he or she wants to live. Recovery — the healing of the will — must come from within. And so, at some point parental intervention involves the deliberate release of a loved one to work out his or her own destiny, to reclaim life under his or her own terms. This kind of relinquishment is the ultimate leap of faith: to entrust that person into the hands of God, come what may. This is the end result of every kind of parenting, of course … but in this case, the stakes are so much higher, and the outcome far less certain.

As for me, right now, my job is to love my children, model integrity and consistency, and pray that God will give us all the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

4 thoughts on “Addiction in Children: A review of “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff

  1. Addiction is one of my biggest concerns for our daughter. My husbands family is riddled with addiction and I often times dwell on how much I can do. I love your quote of having the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Very well said.


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